Critical Essay Exploring Sex, Sexuality and Gender – January 2017 – Foundation Diploma – Miranda Spendiff
Sex, sexuality and gender have been a constant influence in works of art for hundreds of years, exploring and questioning the boundaries of the particular times in which people live. Many famous works of art through the ages have explored and worked within these themes, many containing new imagery, whether it be more obvious than the next, heavily influencing our own opinions on the effects gender and so forth have on our modern society today. Controversial opinions often arise from the context that is sex/sexuality as well as the gender roles and how these are perceived at the time. The discipline that is photography has helped explore and realise the possibilities in which we view these somewhat controversial images, bringing realist views to the public eye as well as overwhelming possibilities through time. From paintings and original pieces of art that first explored sexual behaviour in the 20th Century such as Modigliani up to the most recent innovative artists such as Grayson Perry. Three pieces of photographic work that stood out for me when looking at the themes and ideas surrounding sex, gender and sexuality are David LaChappelle’s portrait of his transgender model, Amanda Lepore and the blatant reference to the gender behind the photo as well as the contrasting imagery of Terry Richardson’s simple sexualised modernistic approach to raw sexuality with his commercial images for American Apparel. Lastly, the classic and less overtly sexual images by Helmut Newton, including his androgynous portrait from 1975 (1) which was centred around Yves Saint Laurent’s creation of smoking tuxedos for woman. From these images, I will be looking between the layers of sexuality, and the lengths that photographers go to portray the area that is possibly the most influential in most recent years.
Art and Design, and all its disciplines, over the centuries of work has explored the theme of sexuality fluidly, exposing different cultural beliefs as well as era-related key moments of importance. Each medium has explored the context with deep abandon, delving into the raw meaning and question’s surrounding our own sexual needs and behaviours. From Modigliani’s work to erotic self-portraits, encouraging and preaching feminism by Joan Semmel. Essentially, what is drawn upon most in all art forms within the context that is sexuality and gender, is the woman’s figure, a typical representation that over the years has become a statement towards breaking past conventions and limits within society (2). Art and design has allowed sexual boundaries to be further pushed, as well as informing society about different aspects surrounding the context in society e.g. gender ideals and stereotypical norms (2). Salvador Dali’s work expanded to many different mediums and concepts however he also explored the female and male forms in a variety of different ways, focusing sometimes on the sexual organs and translating his own frustrations into a raw depiction of sexuality. Exploitation can be seen in most consumerist work, such as adverts, magazines and so forth, although, in modern times, art and design boundaries and themes surrounding sexuality and gender are less impactful in their nature, showcasing a change in our perceptions of modern day sexuality. Art can be provocative when it creates pleasing, shocking or unusual aesthetics; works that can leave a lasting effect on the individual viewers, from exploration of gender and sex. Through art forms, we have been able to challenge what is pleasing about the aesthetic behind images of a sexual nature and question whether it is truly sexual in nature or whether we have been manipulated to believe this. What art also brings is a true important reminder of individualism and respect, regardless of the story behind the photo. Images that explore the ‘controversial’ view of sex and sexuality are portraying a realist view of the society we are in now, as well as significantly pushing the art world forward. From musicians like David Bowie, to graphic designers and visual artists, the theme that is sexuality and sexual nature has been fluent in being a core topic for art, having been featured in some of the most prolific pieces of our time. The world of art has allowed these themes to be challenged and recognised, pushing equality and reminders of respect for all sexes and practices around the world.
I would argue that no other art form has explored these ideas more than photography. Photography has enabled artists to show a graphic point of view on Sex, Sexuality and Gender. When first considering the topic, I immediately began to think about one particular photographer who really pushed the transitions of gender into the public eye. David LaChapelle is a photographer from recent times who often references art history as well as conveying social messages through his work (3). He Is widely known as a commercial and celebrity portrait artist, who celebrates fun and pop imagery through widely elaborate set designs, however he has caused provocative discussions to be brought forward and questioned, through his often use of sexual promiscuity. Some of LaChapelle’s most recognised works surround his ‘muse’ Amanda Lepore, a transgender model and artist as well as friend of LaChapelle’s. His photographs of Amanda, which include shoots with Courtney Love, Madonna and other iconic images such as ‘Milk Maidens’ explore the often taboo subject of sexuality and gender. The photo I have chosen features Amanda and truly explores all three themes within the context, looking at the theme of sexual nature within art and photos as well as the questioning of gender, however focusing on the theme of gender and how it is portrayed within photography (6). His often use of transgender women carry a commercial sexual essence that is more accessible to the public in terms of recognising the contrasts between gender styles. The work shown also explores the gender narrative, showing a male organ in front of the trans-model against the huge assumption that ‘sex sells’ regardless of gender and creates an obvious, clear what we really desire, whilst still suggesting small messages referencing a remote and a housewife stance. LaChapelle recently talked of his iconic documental work in an article stating “Just because she is different, what are you offended about? Are you offended about the breasts or the male genitalia?” (4). His images, videos and posters are there to create a reminder of equality within the world and how art can be an easy platform to showcase the brilliance and uniqueness of all genders and sexuality.
The next piece of work I have chosen is from another modern photographer called Terry Richardson whose work also focuses on commercial practices mostly, having worked for Tom Ford, American Apparel and many more. He is known as a seedy character, not only because his photographic work has portrayed the clear, overtly sexual exploitation of sexual acts, but as he himself has been accused of coercing models into acts behind the photos, often being accused of encouraging inappropriate behaviour in order to create shots that reflect this consumerist exploitation (5). The piece of work I have chosen from his American Apparel campaign is the image of a girl with her legs open, an obvious representation of sexual lust. (7). This image immediately reflects to me an acknowledgment of ‘sex sells’ as well as heterosexual behaviour, clearly showing the context of sex and the explicit and sometimes bordering pornographic and inappropriate nature of exploitation surrounding consumerism and art using women as a way of marketing. What is also interesting is the nature of images from the advertisement, all following presumed heterosexual women who are being used to promote a product. Some regard his work as purely vulgar and not artistic in nature, however some may say it is informative of the times. The image, at first sight, is a clear depiction of everything that goes against feminism, striking up a storm of modern day discussions surrounding feminism and how the sexual nature of women is often exploited. Is the message of the photo taking the stance that women often strive to look like sexual beings or can it be interpreted as questioning our modern views on sex and sexuality in a documental and informative way, additionally is it acceptable to still publish images that carry such a message?
The last image I have chosen is a classic depiction from the 1950’s and onwards of a key change in regards to sexuality and gender roles (1). Helmut Newton was ‘one of the most sought after fashion photographers of his time, often capturing images that at the time were revolutionary and challenging’ (8). His provocative images contained numerous components of sexuality, reflecting social changes and views of the time. Newton brought in his love of sexuality and androgynous looks through his shoot for Vogue Paris in 1975, using Yves Saint Laurent’s women’s smoking jacket to create an iconic image that reflects classical themes of sexuality. This image is one that has been used in many different ways within the art world, reflecting the context in such a mysterious way yet reinforcing the overall questioning of gender roles, from the stance of the woman to the hair and style that usually is associated with the male. The clear depiction of a woman in what is usually a ‘man’s tuxedo’ is one that reflects the questioning of women’s roles and even though is perhaps less overt than that of LaChapelle’s work or Terry Richardson’s, can be seen as an even more openly sexual image, truly portraying a social message and context of sexuality in those times. The image is referred to as ‘portraying and suggesting an idea that of the suit being a typical more masculine ideology compared to that of the femininity of the female nude, endorsing the idea that every woman has a feminine and masculine side’ (8). His exploration of gender through androgyny has enabled many artists to fuel their own work with contrasting views from the same nature. Newton also spoke of LaChapelles work and remarked “A lot of the nudity is just gratuitous. But someone who makes me laugh is David LaChapelle. I think he’s very bright, very funny, and good” (9). Newton referred to himself and his own work as being “Very attracted by bad taste–it is a lot more exciting than that supposed good taste which is nothing more than a standardized way of looking at things” (10)
Showcasing gender, sexuality and sex can be seen in all three images. They each portray aspects of each theme in their own stylistic ways, such as transgender and sexuality, androgyny and pure heterosexual sexual nature, however the one image that truly portrays all three of these themes within the context is that of David LaChapelle’s work. His portrait of Amanda Lepore responds to the issues and questions surrounding gender through the use of a transgender model (6), as well as the blatant sexual nature through the props used and the obvious glamorisation of plastic surgery and sex. What is interesting is the reference in his work back to that of Helmut Newton’s portrayals of classic sexuality and questionable gender roles. The images all have different stylistic approaches, Helmut Newton’s style from a classy and simplistic approach, whilst Terry Richardson’s images confront the question of sexuality head on. LaChapelle’s photo is an obvious yet styled image that focuses on the clear question of sexuality, plunging the theme into a clear representation of the art world and consumerism that follows the theme of sexuality.
(6) David LaChappelle – Amanda Lepore
(7) Terry Richardson – American Apparel Campaign
(1) Helmut Newton – 1975 – Le Smoking
Being able to recognise these forms of sexuality and gender, and put aside the prejudice against ‘sex’ allows us to truly appreciate the advances of opinions on feminism and equality. What is interesting is all three images I chose have largely consumerist aspects around them, reinforcing the idea that sex sells. From a historic and often philosophical point of view, the themes of sexuality and comparing it with an artistic discipline such as photography has shown how we have taken these views and expanded on these expectations over hundreds of years, developing a style that is less frowned upon and now celebrated in appreciating the differences in gender and sexuality. With recent films and books published the discussion of sex has become a more openly discussed topic in which can still be a very visibly provocative ideal or looked at as a way of connecting human beings and the future generation in order to feel less ashamed to speak about gender issues and opinions. “Sex hasn’t changed, the way we view it has and we must accept that” (11).
AnOther – Tish Wrigley – 30th March 2012
8th January 2016
Eleanor Margolis – 20th June 2014
Camera Historica – 23rd January 2015
Artnet Worldwide Corporation – 2017
Columbia Journal – 20th June 2012
Sue Scheff – 26th May 2016
All Photo and Writing Rights Reserved (except references used in the essay and highlighted) to Miranda Spendiff – 25th Jan 2017